General Hoang Xuan Lam wrote:
General Hieu’s military career had climbed up gloriously indeed; however, it was not without bumpers that slowed down the pace of its ascension.
When General Hieu’s father, at that time Deputy Director of Northern Police and Security Bureau, attended the graduation ceremony of 3rd Class Tran Hung Dao, a French instructor told him that cadet Hieu graduated with the highest scores; nevertheless, the official designated as first ranking was Bui Dzinh, who originated from Central Vietnam, to please Emperor Bao Dai.
It is unfortunate that the current situation does not allow to verify this fact by examining the records of cadet Bui Dzinh, who had been promoted from non-commissioned officer in the French Expeditionary Army, and cadet Hieu, a civilian who had to undergo an examination. However, Colonel Dinh Van Chung, AFVN, 3rd Class, always thought of General Hieu as the first ranking; he wrote on February 19, 1999:
After a few days, on 02/23/1999, he recanted:
This mistake is quite understandable since all the 3rd Class cadets were well aware cadet Hieu was the best in academic subjects (maths, French, English, etc…), the best in military subjects (tactical map reading, fire range shooting, general staff, discipline, etc…) and the best in physical education (high jump, field and track, weight throwing, etc…)
In the Hieu/Dzinh controversy, François Buis, voices the following opinion:
Colonel Dinh Van Chung said that The Military Academy had molded him into an officer, worthy of that name, both physically and mentally. Later in this military career, cadet Hieu blossomed into an all around general.
Right after his graduation, First Lieutenant Hieu was inflicted with tuberculosis and was admitted into Lanessan Hospital in Hanoi where received treatment for a while then released to home for a two year convalescent period. By July 1953, he was automatically promoted to Lieutenant, as dictated by regulations, slower than his classmates who already wore the grade of Captain for having ample opportunities to gain combat credits on the battlefields. General Lu Lan recounted:
By 1958, the American government increased the budget set aside for President Ngo Dinh Diem to send 7, 8 high ranking Vietnamese officers to attend the US Army Command and General Staff College in preparation for the command of a division and corps. With his college level and English proficiency, General Hieu should be among those first to be sent to attend this military training. But his turn only came in 1963.
Following is a list of officers who had attended the US Army Command and General Staff College that I was able to gather. Some attended the one-year session, some other attended the intensive five-month session, based on an individual's readiness and on battlefields' demands:
Since he was equally apt in combat/tactics and in general staff/strategy, when it came to select army branches at the graduation, General Hieu had hard time in making up his mind. Joining a combat army branch or unit, such as Airborne, Marine Corps, Armor, Artillery, and roaming the battlefields would provide more opportunites for quick advancement than working in the general staff field in an office. However, two factors had lead General Hieu to take the route of general staff: his health condition (tuberculosis) and his French proficiency (Because at the Joint General Staff, G heads were still French officers, it was the general practice to send officers who were fluent in French to work at the JGS). Captain Hieu held the position of G3 deputy head at JGS from 1953 to 1957. In 1957, Major Hieu followed General Don to Da Nang to become I Corps deputy chief of staff. In 1963, he was sent to attend a five-month intensive advanced military training at US Army Command and General Staff College. Upon graduation, he was assigned 1st Infantry Division Chief of Staff, under General Tri.
In the two years of 1963 and 1964, General Hieu had the opportunity for quick advancement when he was assigned to a combat position. Unfortunately, he only remained a short time in theses two positions and was reverted back to general staff position, jeopardizing his quick advancement. The first time, after the November 1963 coup, Major Hieu was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. It was during that time that Lieutenant Colonel Hieu lead a unit of the 1st Infantry Division to encircle Can’s palace and met in private with Can, President Diem’s younger brother. He succeeded in persuading Can to order the palace guards to surrender without having to shoot a bullet. Then two weeks later,when General Tri was assigned I Corps Commander, in replacement of General Nghiem, General Tri promoted Lieutenant Colonel Hieu to Colonel and assigned him to be the interim 1st Infantry Division Commander. Mid-December 1963, the Junta of Generals, in order to assuage the opposition of the Buddhist sympathizers, swapped the positions of I and II Corps Commanders between General Tri and Nguyen Khanh. Colonel Hieu relinquished his 1st Infantry Division Commander position to Colonel Tran Thanh Phong and followed General Tri to Pleiku to be his II Corps Chief of Staff.
The second time General Hieu lost a combat opportunity was when after he was assigned by General Tri, II Corps Commander, to be 22nd Infantry Division Commander on 9/10/1964, he was pulled back by General Co who replaced General Tri as II Corps Commander, to his previous position of I Corps Chief of Staff on 10/24/1964. According to Vuong Hong Anh, "If Colonel Hieu remained as 22nd Division Commander the first time until after 10/1964, he would have been promoted to Brigadier General in the end of 10/1964. Reason: end of 10/1964, General Khanh, prior of relinquishing the government to a civilian authority (President Phan Khac Suu, Prime Minister Tran Van Huong) had signed a decree to promote to Brigadier General to all Colonels who was holding the position of Division Commander, Army Branch Commander, Corps Deputy Commander, like in the case of Du Quoc Dong who had been made Colonel on 9/15/1964 to be the Airborne Commander in replacement of General Cao Van Vien, was promoted to Brigadier General by reason of job position."
It was not until General Vinh Loc gave to Colonel Hieu the command of 22nd Infantry Division on 6/12/1966 that kicked the advancement into high gear: one year later, one star; and the following year, two stars, due to combat achievements. Had he remained in the position of 1st Infantry Division Commander in 1963 and 22nd Infantry Division Commander in 1964 as above-mentionned, General Hieu undoubtedly would have snatched a third star.
Those years at the helm of 5th Infantry Division had been the most fulfilling years for General Hieu. Enjoying total trust and support from General Tri, General Hieu had ample opportunity to unfold his tactical and strategic skills to the max. He wiped completely the VC out of the three provinces of Binh Duong, Binh Long and Phuoc Long. With such a feat, he merited another star and should be entrusted with the command of III Corps. That had been in fact General Tri’s request when President Thieu wanted him to replace General Lam as I Corps Commander in charge of Lam Son 719 Operation. However, Thieu rejected that request and nominated General Minh instead, when General Tri died suddenly in a helicopter accident in February 1971.
Not only were he not promoted, General Hieu was relieved of the command of 5th Infantry Division by General Minh after the withdrawal from Snoul.
Afterwards General Hieu was transferred to Danang to hold the position of I Corps Deputy Commander, as an assistant to General Lam, one of his military academy classmates. It was only a sinecure position, which explains why later General Lam completely forgot General Hieu had served under him at I Corps from 6/1971 to 2/1972.
Well aware he had been marginalized militarily, when Vice President Huong invited him to become his Special Assistant in charge of anti-corruption, General Hieu gladly accepted the invitation.
Although this function allowed him to deploy some of his other pluralistic skills, General Hieu nevertheless felt restless since his exceptional military skills were not put to use in one of the three big Easter 1972 battles in Kontum, Quang Tri and An Loc.
At the outset, because President Thieu underestimated General Hieu, he enjoyed relative freedom of action. Only relative freedom, since although he succeeded in the Military Pension Fund which caused the demise of General Vy as Defense Minister, General Hieu knew he could not touch two sacred cows: Air Vietnam, because its son’s director was about to marry President Thieu’s daughter, and General Dang Van Quang, because Quang was President Thieu’s Special Advisor.
Then when President Thieu saw General Hieu was getting too bold, daring even to investigate him, he limited General Hieu’s juridistion to the level of district chief and lower. A presidential pre-approval was required prior to commencing an investigation at province chief’s level. General Hieu’s hands were tied. Nevertheless, he continued to secretely build corruption dossiers of sizable crooks, among whom was General Quang, that he left in Vice President Huong’s hands when he returned to the Army in October 1973. It was this dossier that allowed Huong as the newly installed President in replacement of Thieu who resigned on April 21, 1975, to sign his very first decree of relieving General Quang of his Presidential Special Advisor. Thieu did dispatch an emissary to request Huong not to fire Quang and to allow him to resign instead. Huong turned down the request.
Disgusted in his powerless role in the fight of anti-corruption, General Hieu acquiesced to General Thuan’s invitation to work for him as his III Corps Deputy Commander in charge of Operations. In this capacity, he had the opportunity to exercise his tactical skills in the use of blitzkrieg tactic (lighting war) deploying a huge force equivalent to three divisions to assault 5th Division NVA’s HQ located in Svay Rieng Province, deep inside Cambodian territory.
Although he recognized General Hieu’s talents, President Thieu was afraid to entrust General Hieu with the command of III Corps and still wanted to use his talents by maintaining him as a Deputy Commander, while he assigned General Dong then General Toan to the position of III Corps Commander. But then finally, Thieu resorted to have General Hieu’s killed on April 8, 1975, two weeks prior to his resignation as President.
Despite of being independent, non-subservient, uncorrupt, straitghtforward and gentle, General Hieu was able to climb up gloriously the military hierarchic ladder. This fact shows that the authorities valued General Hieu’s exceptional talents, although they were unsympathetic to him, distrusted him and dared not make use of his talents to the maximum.
General Tran Van Don once said, Were there more generals of the same caliber as General Hieu’s in the ARVN, South Viet Nam would not have been lost into the hands of Communists.
Nguyen Van Tin